climate change, wind turbines, innovation, manufacturing

The world is getting warmer. Severe weather events are becoming more frequent and intense. Climate change pressure is building for governments, businesses and individuals to “do something.”

Manufacturing isn’t exempt from this pressure. Regardless of what laws politicians enact, customers want their purchasing dollars to go to those who behave responsibly. Some companies, such as Apple, are addressing their supply chain while making public statements on their climate stance. Others may be less up-front but are making plans nevertheless. And some may be standing by, wondering what they should do.

Climate Change: Two Points of View

Demands from customers, and possibly regulators, to reduce energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions can easily seem burdensome. It would be natural to see impartial increased expenses and additional investment with possibly poor, even negative ROI. But there is an alternative perspective.

The manufacturing industry has adopted “Lean” techniques enthusiastically. Lean is about driving out waste from every aspect of manufacturing. Lean thinking helps manufacturers consume less of everything, from packaging and raw materials to energy.

Seen through this lens, a response to climate change, whether prompted by customer expectations, government pressure or a desire to do the right thing, is an opportunity to continue being lean. Want to lower energy costs? Look for ways to use less. Want to cut material consumption? Find ways to avoid scrap and start-up losses. In short, responding to climate change is also an opportunity to increase profits and grow the business, all while building a “green” reputation and embracing sustainability.

So, what does this have to do with innovation? Everything.

Climate-driven Manufacturing Innovation

According to the EPA, industry accounts for a fifth of all global greenhouse gas emissions, and that’s not counting electricity generation. Those emissions come from energy-intensive processes like melting, casting, sintering, glazing and chemical production. Clearly, there’s a big opportunity to both cut costs and demonstrate environmental responsibility. What’s needed are tools and technologies that go beyond current capabilities, and those require innovation.

Examples abound, from auto manufacturers adopting zero landfill policies and Apple creating a closed-loop supply chain to the growth of plant-based meat substitutes. But what technologies could help smaller, and less-funded manufacturers make an impact? Here are three:

Industry 4.0

The convergence of low cost sensors with connectivity and big data analytics promises to have such an impact that it’s being called the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Together these technologies will give manufacturers new insights into ways of optimizing their production processes and their supply chains for lower costs and better customer service. Along the way, whether by accident or design, they’ll drive smart manufacturing practices and help reduce waste and greenhouse gas emissions.

Bosch, for example, has put sensors on manufacturing equipment in a factory in Wuxi, China. These report operational details to analytics software, which helps engineers to improve yields and predict breakdowns while there’s still time to take remedial action.

Additive Manufacturing

Material removal processes are inherently wasteful. Unwanted chips and offcuts may go for recycling, but isn’t it better not to produce them in the first place? That’s one benefit of additive manufacturing techniques like 3D printing. These advanced systems build complex forms from metal powder or plastic feedstock, reducing the volume of material cut away from castings or forgings. It could also enable manufacturing at point-of-use rather than in a remote factory, reducing supply change climate impacts.

Increasingly, additive manufacturing is seen as a way to create lighter, stronger components that replace complex assemblies. Last year, General Motors revealed a 3D printed seat bracket designed using generative techniques. This saves on material, lightens the vehicle for improved fuel economy, and results in a less complex manufacturing process than stamping and welding.

Augmented Reality

For many people the first experience with augmented reality (AR) was a cellphone game that overlaid computer generated images on real-world scenes. AR is much more than an entertainment technology though. It has the potential to radically change aspects of manufacturing like machine maintenance and training.

Mitsubishi, for example, has developed an AR system that enables direct comparison with computer-aided design (CAD) models to help technicians perform inspection tasks. Likewise, Boeing is reportedly using AR to help technicians install wiring on the 787-8, while Land Rover is using it to show their techs the complex systems mounted behind vehicle dashboards.

So, how does AR benefit the climate-conscious manufacturer? First, by reducing errors it cuts waste. That means less energy and material consumption. Second, by facilitating improved levels of technical support, it can eliminate the need to travel for fault debugging, training or education.

Why is Environmental Innovation in Manufacturing Not Being Reported?

Finding ways to use less energy and material doesn’t just benefit the climate; it helps manufacturers lower their costs and become more competitive. That’s why, while many are looking for and implementing process innovations, they don’t get reported. Why go public about your latest manufacturing innovation when it will aid your competitor and help them avoid the R&D effort you’ve just been through? It’s important to remember that it is possible to stay competitive and environmentally conscious.

Reducing the Environmental Impact of Manufacturing: Some Lead, Others Follow

Manufacturers around the world are under pressure to reduce their impact on the environment. Some will see only additional expense but many view it as an opportunity. Those in the second group want to keep improving their competitive position, and a host of manufacturing innovations will help them succeed. It’s about staying apprised of the incoming demands, finding and implementing environmentally-friendly practices that are most suitable, and then scaling it to fit the needs of your business. So, are you a leader or a follower?